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February 7, 2007

Florida holds off challengers to claim title

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In Gainesville, Fla., they say you're either a Gator or Gator bait.

That is true this recruiting season.

The Florida Gators have been crowned by Rivals.com as the recruiting national champions for the class of 2007. The Gators finished with an amazing run after their national championship on the field. Coach Urban Meyer and his staff landed four five-star players and 15 four-star recruits.

As of 7 p.m. EST, the Gators were sitting with 2,959 points - just ahead of USC, Tennessee, LSU and Texas. The rest of the Rivals.com top 10 is South Carolina at No. 6, Auburn at No. 7, Notre Dame at No. 8, Georgia at No. 9 and Alabama at No. 10.

Elite recruiting classes are nothing new for the Gators. The 2003 class and the 2006 recruiting class finished at No. 2 in the Rivals.com team rankings. Since Rivals.com has been covering recruiting, the Gators have never finished outside of the top 20.

The foundation of the Gators' class was formed last spring when Florida received commitments from major players like elite junior college quarterback Bryan Waggener, four-star Rivals100 tight end Aaron Hernandez, four-star Rivals100 all-purpose running back Chris Rainey and four-star Rivals250 defensive end Jerry Howard. Things took off in June with pledges from Ahmad Black, LaShawn Pouncey, James Pouncey, Paul Wilson and Steve Wilks.

By the time the summer was over, they added Rivals100 standouts Joe Haden, Torrey Davis and Cameron Newton.

The run that Florida had down the stretch was even more impressive.

James Wilson, the nation's top offensive guard, committed to Florida on Jan. 17. The Ponte Verde Beach (Fla.) Nease standout previously committed to USC.

A few days later, top-five national player Carlos Dunlap of South Carolina bucked the thought he would stay home and play for the Gamecocks. Dunlap committed to the Gators on Jan. 22.

But Florida wasn't finished.

Notre Dame commitment Justin Trattou, a four-star defensive end, switched to Florida after taking a Jan. 19 official visit to Gainesville, Fla. That was followed by the major pickup of Rivals100 safety Major Wright from Fort Lauderdale (Fla.) St. Thomas Aquinas. Rivals250 defensive tackle John Brown deciding to stay home instead of bolting for Alabama.

"We had a great class this year," Wright said. "I wanted to join in and help Florida continue winning. That's what this class is all about staying on top and keeping the Gators at No. 1 in the country."

One of the biggest shockers of the year happened the night before Signing Day. The nation's top safety, Jerimy Finch of Indianapolis (Ind.) Warren Central, announced he was heading to Gainesville.

"I think they are the best school for me and what's best for my future," Finch said. "I can see why they landed so many great recruits this year. Florida is just an incredible situation, and I'm honored to be part of such an amazing recruiting class. I feel special to be included in the top group. It just makes me that much more excited about being a Gator."

Gator coach Urban Meyer said Florida kind of stumbled into Finch.

"After appraising the top-100 list, I saw that he was ranked highly and I wanted to know where he was going," Meyer said.

"I knew Warren Central from my days at Notre Dame. I called the coach, and he said, 'Coach, you'll never believe this, but we just finished talking about Florida.' He played in the Orlando all-star game, and the kid loves Florida. Five minutes later, I was on the phone with (Finch). Without watching one speck of tape on him, I asked him if he wanted to come down for a visit. We thought he was a great kid and a good-looking safety, and his tape just solidified it.

"We offered him, and he decided to come. It's unbelievable because I didn't go to Indiana once the whole time."

Then the final commitment that sealed the No. 1 class up for the Gators was the addition of Belle Glade (Fla.) Glades Central four-star receiver Deonte Thompson. He picked the Gators over Miami, Florida State and USC.

"The guy that kind of knocked it out of the park for us was Deonte Thompson," Meyer said. "He came to us just about an hour and a half ago and that was a must have. We got him out of South Florida, which is a tough place to get guys. So I am very pleased with our recruiting class."

The Trojans climbed all the way to the No. 2 spot and just missed finishing No. 1 for the fourth season in a row. Their final blitz was highlighted by the addition of the nation's No. 2 player, Joe McKnight of River Ridge (La.) John Curtis. Throw in commitments from four-star defensive tackle Christian Tupou, five-star receiver/cornerback Ronald Johnson, three-star tight end Rhett Ellison and three-star defensive end Trey Henderson over the past week, and it has been nothing short of a run to remember.

Tennessee looks like it'll finish at No. 3 in the national rankings. The Vols won a few and lost a few battles on Signing Day, but that doesn't take away from the great class that Phillip Fulmer put together. Five-star cornerback Eric Berry, five-star linebacker Chris Donald and five-star athlete Brent Vinson are a few of the headliners in this year's Tennessee class. The late addition of Rae Sykes helped cement them at No. 3.

"We are excited about our 2007 class of new Volunteers," Tennessee coach Phillip Fulmer said. "Our recruiting efforts paid off for us as we did well in-state, as we filled most of our needs by position, held firm with our commitments and closed well at the end."

As expected five-star athlete Chad Jones of Baton Rouge (La.) Southern Lab committed to LSU, helping cement the Tigers in the national top five at No. 4 overall. The Tigers' headliner is five-star receiver Terrance Toliver, the top pass-catcher in the state of Texas.

"Terrance has great speed, combined with his height and ability to put the ball away after the catch," LSU coach Les Miles said about his new star receiver

"He is a tremendous target. When you put a guy that's 6-foot-4 in the secondary with speed, he's fit us to a T. When you're throwing against the safeties and corners that we see, he gives us a great advantage. He'll really define our passing attack for years to come."

The Tigers also more than held their own in their back yard despite losing McKnight with nine commitments from Louisiana. They also added a re-signing from the 2006 class in Shomari Clemons.

Texas had been in the No. 1 slot for most of the recruiting process. However, when more teams caught up to the Longhorns it pushed them down the rankings just slightly. Texas is slotted at the No. 5 spot. Five-star offensive guard Tray Allen, five-star cornerback Curtis Brown and four-star athlete John Chiles all have the potential to be stars in this class.

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